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Kenya Culture, Geography and History
Culture and Customs of Kenya
Kenya is one of Africa’s most multicultural countries, with a population as diverse as its terrain. There are more than 40 different ethnic tribes, each with their own language, culture and customs. The red-robed, beaded Maasai of the south are undoubtedly the most famous tribespeople of the region. The unique Swahili culture dominates the coastal regions and Islam is quite common in the North. Nairobi is home to a large swirl of humanity, with significant Indian, African and Western populations. As a result, you’re likely to see mosques, churches and temples, taste international cuisine from all over the world and hear the sounds of Kenyan hip-hop, traditional African drumming and Western pop.
Depending on where you are in Kenya, the culture and customs vary according to the area you are visiting. The northern and coastal regions tend to be more traditional, while Nairobi, as an international hub of trade and commerce, tends to be more liberal. The Maasai and other tribes typically lead pastoral lives based on agriculture and animal husbandry. Their daily life is based on centuries of tradition and if you get the chance to visit a tribal village, you’ll be able to see the customs of these fascinating people firsthand. Traditional clothing, dance, song and ceremonies keep this proud culture alive in the face of modernisation, which is sweeping through the country.
Kenya's Lamu Island has no roads and is entirely free of cars - locals and tourists get around on donkeys, on foot and by boat
Geography and Environment of Kenya
Kenya is located in East Africa, sharing borders with Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. With a diverse topography, Kenya has a wide variety of terrain – lofty mountains, dense rainforest, stark plains and soft-sand beaches.
This diversity also applies to the environments that Kenya’s people live in. Kenya’s crowded capital is a heaving melange of cars, buses, skyscrapers, street stalls, markets and people; the idyllic Loita Hills is the heart of Maasai country; the national parks run wild with exotic creatures; and rustic Lamu Island is a car-free piece of living history. Overall, most Kenyans either live a fast-paced existence in the modern metropolis of Nairobi or a quieter, agricultural-based life in Kenya’s rural towns and villages.
History and Government of Kenya
Recent archaeological findings in Kenya have revealed the remains of one of the earliest species of hominid, placing Kenya among the first places inhabited by humans. Before the arrival of outsiders, Kenya was inhabited by nomadic tribes who most likely entered Kenya from the north. The Maasai and the Kikuyu were the most dominant in numbers, although the Maasai were well known for their reputation as strong warriors who often raided their neighbours.
During the 19th century, Kenya came under the influence of outside cultures due to the arrival of traders from the Middle East and Asia, and settlers and missionaries from Europe. Britain and Germany both had vested interests in Kenya for its abundance of natural resources (especially ivory) and because it was an important point for trade. As such, settlers from Britain, Germany and other European nations flooded into the country in large numbers, setting up agricultural empires such as coffee plantations. These plantations relied heavily on local tribespeople for labour, much to the resentment of the indigenous populations. As a result of this, a large number of Indian labourers were brought to Kenya to work on plantations and build railroads. This Indian influence is reflected in the current population of Kenya.
After much infighting, confrontation, uprising and reform, Kenya was granted its independence from British colonial rule in 1963. The “Mau Mau Uprising” of the 1950s was responsible for drawing attention to the plight of the African population, and was also the catalyst for the change in how Kenya is governed.
The 1970s saw Kenya’s international economic profile grow due to the successful development of a free-market economy, with agriculture and tourism creating more a more stable economy. More recently, Kenya’s tourism industry has continued to develop and flourish, mainly due to its wealth of exotic animals, national parks, coastal hot-spots and unique cultures. Standards of living have also improved in Kenya, with an overall improvement in life expectancy, infant mortality and fertility rates – probably due to the increased investment in family planning, education and health by both the Kenyan government and NGOs. Despite this, many Kenyans still live below the poverty line and struggle to provide the bare necessities for themselves and their children. Regardless of this, travellers will be touched by the generosity of spirit and genuine hospitality that Kenyans display to visitors.
Kenya at a glance
- Nairobi (population 2 million)
- 40 million
- Swahili, English
- (GMT+03:00) Nairobi
- Type G (Irish/British 3-pin)
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